Monday, July 9, 2007

Dawkins Filling the Gap
By: Anne Stake

I have never been one of those people that Richard Dawkins would call a “true believer”, and I have never even considered myself religious at all. However, being brought up in our society, I haven’t been immune to religion’s great influence either. One consequence of this is that, I have never really openly voiced any opposition to religion in front of those who do believe. No matter how much I have discussed religion in a structured intellectual environment, when it has come to confronting and questioning people’s devotion, I have remained silently respectful. I have even found myself impressed by my religious friends who seem to have such strong faith. I have been one of the many people who sets religion on a moral high ground, believing myself to be acting correctly. However, after reading Richard Dawkins’ brilliantly argued book, “The God Delusion”, I realize the error behind our society’s “soft spot” for religious ideas. As Richard Dawkins asks, why should the “God hypothesis” be immune to the same scrutiny as any other explanation for our existence on earth? Indeed, I’m sure now that no matter how difficult it may be to question religious ideas, it doesn’t deserve any immunity from open questioning.

The phrase “God hypothesis” eliminates one of the key points in Richard Dawkins’ book. He treats God as a scientific hypothesis, and to me this only reaffirms his credibility as not only a scientist, but as a man worthy of addressing the delicate and controversial subject of religion. Rather than dismissing the existence of God outright, which would make him just as irrational as the religious enthusiasts, he treats it as another hypothesis and presents the evidence that would negate God’s existence. I found this method to be an ingenious way to bring the people on the fence about religion under his spell. After all, it’s not only Dawkins speaking, but scientific evidence itself. Another way Dawkins’ primes his more sensitive readers is by distinguishing between the types of Gods he is talking about. I particularly enjoyed the description of the “Einsteinian God” versus the all-knowing and rational creator of all. I and I presume the majority of his readers appreciated the precision and care he put into defining “God”, because it is true that many of us, including Einstein, think of “God” in our own ways, completely separate from the “God” of the Semitic religions and their derivatives.

As Dawkins proceeds to the meat of his arguments, his writing shows his insight and rationality of his convictions. His words not only express his passion, but also his honesty. When he writes about the views of NOMA, he shows how culturally engrained religion is in our society, that scientists must come up with the idea of NOMA, simply to avoid conflict and keep the funding rolling in. To me this is an example of the startlingly large influence that religion has in today’s world. In the United States, where we have an apparently “secular” society, religion plays a huge role in political agendas and in determining the outcome of our elections. Even in Great Britain, the deeply religious former Prime Minister Tony Blaire advocated a school that teaches new earth creationism and brainwashes its pupils by providing false information that only the scriptures can verify. The idea of “brainwashing” leads to another point that Dawkins makes about the persistence of religion today. Our society effectively labels children as part of a religion before they are able to develop the critical thinking skills necessary to decide for themselves. Dawkins classifies this as a form of mental child abuse, and I would agree.

In addition to presenting evidence and providing an enlightening discussion about the danger of religion, the question of why religion exists in the first place lingers beneath the surface. Dawkins brings it to light with his part evolutionary, part neurological hypotheses for the “roots of religion”. Belief in a God is not an isolated phenomenon, and it’s prevalence throughout human existence and in every corner of the world demands an explanation. One of the ideas I found interesting is that religion is a “by product” of the traits that helped survival by believing and following advice of the elders. As we have evolved, that neurological trait has persisted but cannot distinguish between the true and the false, the false being religious ideas.

However, even though Dawkins does assert that religious ideas are false, he doesn’t dismiss the study of religion. I remember a discussion in class and when I mentioned that I had taken a “comparative religion” class, I received raised eyebrows and a skeptical question about the type of school I attended. However, my comparative religions class was probably the most interesting class that I have ever taken. When I read Dawkins advocating such classes, my convictions were reaffirmed. In Dawkins view, and in mine, religions are important for children to study, so that children can determine for themselves what to believe. Religion is also important to study because of its role in literature as Dawkins points out. There is no denying that religion is an important aspect of culture, and when Dawkins acknowledges this, he honed in on my own conflict. As a person who loves traveling and learning about other cultures, part of me wants to respect cultural traditions and even let them persist even if they are incorrect. Dawkins even admits that he identifies with the conflict of the “liberals”. However, he also stresses the possibility of preserving a “treasured heritage” without blindly following beliefs.

I have heard arguments and read other influential scientists write about religion. When I read another brilliant book on the ideas of string theory, “The Elegant Universe”, I was somewhat surprised to find that the last chapter stresses the possibility of God. However, going back to Dawkins’ beginning, I don’t think the God in “The Elegant Universe” is the God of the scriptures, but rather more of a metaphorical God like Einstein’s. Dawkins quoted Einstein as saying, “I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it”. It is possible to be spiritual and a believer without adhering to the irrationality and dangerous practices of the three primary religions. It is possible to be in awe, to live morally, to be happy and to be fulfilled without religion. That is the lasting message that Dawkins drives home, and that is the most important message for his readers. If we let ourselves or “free ourselves” from the cultural “burka” that imprisons us, it is possible to experience life more fully, to stand without constraint in the awe inspiring natural world and the marvels that science can “uncover”.

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